Protecting Relationships from the Strain of Depression

According to statistics, nearly 15 million adults in the U.S. struggle with depression. While that number alone is staggering, it doesn't even tell us half the story when it comes to the condition's actual impact. You see, the depression that directly afflicts millions also has a significant effect on those around them - their spouses, partners, parents, children, and close friends. If each person with depression lives with or loves just two other people, that means it touches nearly 45 million Americans.

Depression's Strain

Depression almost always puts a strain on relationships. This occurs in a variety of ways, all of which can take a very serious toll over time. Three ways depression causes problems is 1) by creating physical and emotional distance or barriers; 2) by causing resentment to build; and 3) by damaging intimacy.

Distance: Depression tends to physically push people apart, creating distance between them that would not be there otherwise. People living with depression may sleep too much or isolate, staying alone in a room for hours on end. They often stop engaging in activities they had previously shared with loved ones, like walking the dog or eating dinner together. Depression also creates an emotional distance. For example, people who are depressed often put up walls by keeping their thoughts and feelings to themselves, or conveying the impression that they "don't care" about others anymore.

Resentment: It's not uncommon for resentment to begin to fester when depression is impacting relationships. This destructive emotion often affects those who are depressed as well as everyone around them. Those wrestling with the disorder may begin to resent friends and loved ones because they're happier and able to function normally. Friends and loved ones may start to feel resent the impact the person's depression is having on their lives. It's not uncommon for loved ones to feel anger and bitterness, especially if they must assume responsibilities their depressed loved one can no longer handle, such as caring for the children or paying the bills.

Intimacy: For the spouses and significant others of individuals who struggle with depression, the disorder can take a noticeable toll on the intimate aspects of the relationship. Depression itself often decreases one's libido, thus dampening their need or desire for sexual intimacy. This may also be caused by some antidepressant medications as well. The non-depressed partner may also lose the desire to be intimate, due to the emotional distance and resentment that have built up within the relationship.

Tips for Loved Ones

Fortunately, many relationships are able to overcome the strain of depression - although it does take effort to do so. Following are a few things you can do if your loved one is grappling with the dark grip of depression:

  • Learn everything you can about depression. Depression is a very real disorder - it's not simply feeling down in the dumps, nor is it something your loved one can simply control with sheer willpower. Don't expect him or her to "snap out of it" or "buck up and deal with life" - it doesn't work that way. Depression is a serious psychiatric disorder that is likely due to multiple factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, and /or exposure to traumatic events. Individuals who struggle with depression think very differently than people who enjoy good mental health. Learning more about depression will help dispel common myths and add perspective regarding the challenges your loved one faces each day.
  • Nurture your own emotional well-being. Visiting a therapist isn't just for people already dealing with a specific mental health issue. It's can also be very helpful for the non-depressed person in a relationship - both in terms of learning how to best support a depressed loved one and also maintaining one's own mental health. A skilled therapist, such as a psychologist or other mental health professional, can help you gain insight into your own emotions and behaviors.
  • Join a support group. Joining a support group is another good way to nurture your emotional well-being. Find a group, locally or online, focused on providing support to family members and friends of people with depression.
  • Support your loved one's treatment plan. While depression is a serious and potentially chronic condition, successful treatment is possible. As your spouse, parent, or child works with mental health professionals, make it a priority to support their treatment plan. For instance, you might remind him or her to take medication, or take your loved one to therapy sessions. Another important aspect of support is to stay positive. If you don't agree with the course of treatment, express your feelings in a respectful manner.
  • Consider couple's therapy. When one partner is dealing with depression, it puts considerable strain on a relationship. Researchers who reviewed depression treatment studies found that couples-based therapy reduced feelings of depression as well as conflict within relationships [1]. By attending couple's therapy, you and your significant other will gain insight into how depression affects you as a couple. It will also help you find healthy ways to work through those challenges.
  • Be patient. Just as with other medical conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease, learning to manage depression takes time. When a parent, spouse, or other loved one lives with the disorder, patience will be a key aspect in finding successful treatment. For example, many antidepressants take weeks to work effectively; they also don't work for everyone. It may take multiple attempts to find a medication that works effectively for your loved one. Psychotherapy, whether individual or couple's therapy, also takes time to produce results.

Tips for the Person with Depression

  • Get professional help as soon as possible. Depression is a medical disorder that requires treatment by a mental health specialist. He or she will assess your condition and develop a treatment plan that often includes more than one approach. Individual therapy and antidepressant medication are the two most common treatments for depression.
  • Recognize how your depression affects others. You already understand how depression overwhelms your own life, but it's important to realize that it may be placing a significant strain on those around you. Be supportive and patient as your loved ones learn to effectively deal with this challenge. Trust that they are likely doing the best they can, just as you are.
  • Exercise regularly. Even when depression makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning, physical activity is a critical way to increase both your physical and emotional well-being. Regular exercise will naturally improve your mood by releasing endorphins, which are your body's natural feel-good chemicals. In fact, several studies suggest that regular exercise is just as beneficial as antidepressants when it comes to reducing symptoms of depression.
  • Develop a strong support network. No matter how supportive your non-depressed family members and friends may be, they won't ever fully understand what you're going through. By connecting with others who have struggled with depression, you'll build a network of people able to genuinely understand your concerns and challenges.
  • Get help for your children. Your depression can affect your children's emotional well-being. Talk with a pediatrician or mental health specialist to find resources that give your children the tools needed to understand your depression. Options for helping children deal with parental depression include individual and/or family therapy, as well as support groups for children.

Depression affects everyone it touches. Its impact is not limited to those living with the disorder; it affects their loved ones as well, from the littlest toddler to an aging parent. The best solution for managing depression and reducing the strain it can cause is one that addresses everyone's needs. Take action to protect your by finding healthy ways to handle the depression that touches your life.

Posted on January 2nd, 2013
Posted in Depression

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